Ishion Hutchinson: Award-Winning Poet, Professor Captures ‘Spirit of Caribbean’

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A report by Rachel Whalen for The Cornell Sun.

As English Professor Ishion Hutchinson recounted his past, his voice carried what he called the “melody” of his home of Port Antonio, Jamaica.

“The spirit of Caribbean-ness and those kinds of things, they’re so intertwined in the psyche,” he said. “Yes, you suffer from this wound, this immense desire to want to be there, to be engaging with the physical landscape and so on and so forth — but those things are inside of you.”

“The sea is inside of me, the Blue Mountains would be my nose,” he laughed. “It’s really big.” The story of the Caribbean is “still unfolding,” as Hutchinson put it — and he has played his own substantial role in shaping that story.

A poet by profession and by nature, Hutchinson’s most recent work, “House of Lords and Commons,” is something that Dan Chiasson of The New Yorker calls “timeless.”

The collection, which was published last September, has earned Hutchinson a National Book Critics Circle Award and, most recently, a Guggenheim Fellowship, which is awarded for “exceptionally creative ability in the arts.”

“I have nothing but gratitude,” he said about his recent successes. “As a poet, you’re coming from a space or place of intense privacy. And then it gets out that you’re a poet, and there’s a lot of fear and trembling. I have been fortunate with people who were encouraging.”

Hutchinson’s roots to poetry are embedded in his home, which he characterizes as having its own unique endurance.

“My specific awakening to poetry is tied to that belonging,” he said. “If you have had a childhood in the Caribbean — or anywhere, but speaking specifically about the Caribbean — you know you have been touched by all of history, from ancestral pasts that have been obscured, right into the very beginning of the modern world. So that nexus of past, history and the uncertainty, at times, of what will be is always, I think, in the bloodstream of a Caribbean person.”

Hutchinson grew up on the poetry of British Romantic poets, and he said that a particular high school teacher saw promise in his early poems and gave him exercises to do outside of class.

“I grew up with people who were illiterate, not because they chose to be, but because of circumstances,” he said. “These are people, too, who were very supportive of some random boy with a pencil and a notebook. And I feel that they responded to that image of a boy because they’re projecting a certain hope for a future wherein more boys and girls would be excited about running around like anthropologists trying to write down everything around them, owning things in their very language and speaking for themselves.”

The poet’s biggest inspiration, however, is the recently deceased Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott, who showed Hutchinson what it meant to write about home.

“[He] was a big surprise and revelation to me,” Hutchinson said. “A writer from the Caribbean who wrote the landscape in his wrist. Lots of his images were close to the ones I lived in, so there was an immediate recognition. That was thrilling to read and try to emulate.”

In his first year at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, Hutchinson was to meet his idol and do a workshop with him after winning scholarship in Walcott’s name.

“I knew his work much better than I knew him, the man, but I also had occasions of talking with him,” he said. “Other workshop members and I met at, I believe it was the Hilton Hotel in Kingston, where he sat at the head of the table, and everybody else sat just terrified.”

After obtaining his undergraduate degree in English, Hutchinson embarked on a voyage to New York University, where he received his Masters of Fine Arts in what he considers a sort of “reverse colonization.”

“It’s a mixture of accidents and desperate last decisions that led me to an MFA,” he recalled. “I heard about it from a friend who said, ‘you could actually go to the States to study poetry,’ which sounded to me like the most alarming thing anyone could have said.”

Hutchinson taught at four universities — including the University of Utah, where he obtained his dual Ph.D. in Creative Writing and English — before settling in Ithaca. As a poet, Hutchinson said he strives to embody the spirit of his relations and home and to honor the support system behind him.

“There’s something very ennobling about being a writer, and it’s nothing to take for granted, especially when you’re from a place where the history has always been against you,” he said. “I want to, when I write, honor the spirit of the illiterate, kind people, like my grandmother, who is in the texture of the language.”

Hutchinson added that part of being a writer touches upon being a reader, and he strives to “appease the shadows” of the writers admires. To him, engaging poetry is an “electrifying” experience.

“Every day, every new poem, every other story is an opportunity to change your life,” he said. “For me, you can only touch your heart — I mean literally hold your chest — when a poem enters poetry. It is so powerful. It silences you and makes you remember your body.”

Poets are a “version of evangelists,” Hutchinson claimed — generators of experiences that do not simply “collapse” down the page, but exist in readers for generations to come.

“The poets that you love, they do something to the blood ratio,” he explained. “Certainly, what Emily Dickinson says is true, it takes the top of your head off. … It makes you want to go out and break shit. But you don’t have to go out, necessarily, you could break shit inside of you, and find ways of agitating on the level of making your language not co-opted by the machinery of real politic.”

To Hutchinson, poetry is a continuous process, and he strives to emulate that in his work and his teaching.

“It’s the ongoing, ever-burdensome — not just thinking with thoughts, but with feeling — about this desire of wanting to possess something so large,” he said. “I think about that a syllable at a time.”

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